Giving the speech at her bat mitzva ceremony on Nov. 2, Katie Darvin drew a parallel between the biblical figure Isaac, featured in her Torah portion, Toldot, and the developmentally disabled people she met last summer while doing her mitzva project.
They, like the patriarch, persist in the face of adversity, she said.
From the end of the school year in June till late August, the Short Hills 12-year-old volunteered at the WAE (Wellness, Art & Enrichment) Center in West Orange, which helps adults with disabilities to learn and create, with programs in writing, painting, film, music, and more. The nonprofit is run by Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled of MetroWest, Inc., a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Katie, the daughter of Susi and Ken Darvin, loves gymnastics and art; at the center, she helped out in the circus and balancing class, reading programs, and art classes. She told the congregation at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, “These individuals, despite their deficits, display determination and perseverance every minute of every day in their lives. I was so fortunate to be touched by beautiful individuals with severe disabilities.”
Though no longer a regular helper, a few days after the service, Katie visited the circus class along with this reporter. It was a scene that could intimidate the unaccustomed, with some very handicapped people — mostly men — at the afternoon session, working with holistic circus arts therapist Maryann Stevens. But Katie was warm and relaxed with them, even with those who stared at her in silence.
Her mother, Susi, watched her daughter interacting in the class with a look of wonder as the teen exchanged brightly colored hoops, scarves, and disks with the WAE clients. “She’s always been this way,” Susi said. “She’s really kind.”
“I was uncomfortable when I first came here, but after about three days, I really began to enjoy it,” Katie said. “The most surprising thing would be that a silent conversation could have so many words and feelings. The most difficult experience? Trying to explain directions that were complex to someone who could not process them quickly.
“My view of people with disabilities has changed,” she continued. “Now I understand that certain subjects like math, grammar, language, etc., may not come easily to them, but they understand people. They understand how to get us to do what they desire, which is amazing.
“I have learned that community is a treasure. Community is like a family, caring, warm, close. And the power of art is therapeutic and strong. It is something that can make one feel independent and free. The whole experience has been amazing.”
Monica Schneider-Brewer, who handles special projects and events at WAE, said Katie “was a pleasure to have here at the center. We found her observations to be very moving.”